The pages on the followthethings.com begin as coursework set for groups of students taking a Geographies of Material Culture module at the University of Exeter. They also their own experiments of cultural activism, and write personal reflective journals on what they learn. Kate Brockie’s group were tasked to find a way to draw public attention to the work of mineral justice NGO Global Witness through cultural activism. They chose a talc mining report to work with. Sarah Ditty, the policy director for the Fashion Revolution movement, had kicked off that part of the talk. How could the work of Global Witness and Fashion revolution be connected? Kate scoured the internet, took out her sewing machine, and made her case.
Global Witness’s investigations into the ways in which talc mining finances insurgency in Afghanistan shocked me. How could products as harmlessly trivial as eye shadow be fuelling terrorism, disrupting the lives of thousands of civilians (Global Witness 2018)? The Global Witness campaign gave me an unsettling feeling of being entangled in global webs of exploitation, wondering whether everything else I use throughout my day contributes to some kind of injustice. Continue reading
Last week CEO Ian was a panelist at the last ESRC-funded seminar series on Ethics in Consumption: Interdisciplinary Perspectives at Birkbeck, University of London. The main speakers were Jonathan Porritt and Danny Miller, and the panel included Kate Soper, Jo Littler, Frank Trentmann and Terry Newholm. Drawing on Louise Ashcroft’s artist in residence (self invited) work at London’s Westfield Shopping Mall, Ian’s contribution to the panel involved reading out one of the cards from Louise’s Mallopoly game. His point – that debates about research-inspired change need to involve more-than-rational argumentation. And that Louise’s work should be required reading. Starting with this interview about her residency’s retail poisoning in We Make Money Not Art. Enjoy!
In January 2017, artist Louise Ashcroft invited herself to be an artist in residency at Westfield Shopping Centre. That’s the mega mall in Stratford, East London. Its retail area is as big as 30 football pitches (says wikipedia), it has famous chains of fast fashion & fast food, screens budget-bloated blockbusters, rents kiddy cars and boasts some seriously boring ‘public’ artworks. Because there’s nothing remotely boring, mass manufactured nor glittery about her work (and also because she is quietly plotting the demise of capitalism), Ashcroft spent her time there undercover, pretending she was only looking for a bit of shopping fun.
The artist will present the result of her stealth research this week at arebyte in Hackney Wick, a five-minute walk from Westfield. Some of the works she developed at the shopping mall include a transposition of words from slogan fashion T-shirts on traditional narrow boat signs, offers to exchange ‘happy’ meals toys with more ‘soulful’ artist-designed toys, seditious retail therapy sessions, bookable tours of Westfield where she will guide participants through playful (pseudo)psychoanalytical activities, ‘mallopoly’ cards that invite shoppers to use the mall and its contents as a material, etc. Oh! and, since the Westfield area is the home of grime she also compiled words from Argos shopping catalogues into a cut-up text and grime artist Maxsta recorded it as a track.
This is not Ashcroft’s first incursion into the magical world of retail poisoning. She regularly smuggles unfamiliar-looking African vegetables into supermarkets and then throws the store in disarray when she attempts to buy them (Vegetable, 2003-17.) …
Regine (2014) Retail poisoning: a disruption of materialism. We Make Money Not Art, 19 November
PS Louise’s website is here.
We’ve just returned from the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) annual conference on Exhibition Road in London. We’ve been working with the artist and PhD student Paula Crutchlow (and others) on a project called the Museum of Contemporary Commodities (MoCC). Our museum opened for four days in the RGS’s Pavilion Gallery, and people dropped by on their way between the Royal Albert Hall (for the Proms), Serpentine Gallery (for the Grayson Perry exhibition) and the V&A (for the plywood exhibition). What brought people in from the street was a creepy poster of MoCC’s golden child and hacked talking Guide Mikayla. We thought we’d share with you her moving life story in film – our compilation of her life story from child’s toy to banned surveillance device My Cayla – and biography – Paula’s account of how My Cayla became MoCC Guide Mikayla. There’s plenty more on the MoCC website. How and why would you hack a doll like this though? Read on…
My Cayla: the movie
Mikayla: a hacked biography
“If you took me apart, each bit of me would be a commodity. Each of those things have been made by different people in lots of different places. That’s an awful lot of work isn’t it?” MoCC Guide Mikayla on how she values herself.
The idea of MoCC Guide Mikayla arrived with us in February 2015. A friend of mine had been given a My Friend Cayla doll at a corporate IT event she was working for. ‘I’ve got just the thing for your museum!’ she said. What could be a better face of contemporary commodity culture than an internet connected ‘smart’ doll?
We started the phone app to power her up, and then spent the best part of an hour trying to talk with her. Irritatingly glitchy and slow, we tested inappropriate phrases and talked over her head. She sang songs and offered us games to play. Eventually, with advice from her 16 year old daughter, we bent our thoughts and words to My Friend Cayla’s logic – conducting a halting conversation about clothes, looking nice, Disney Princesses and pink things.
Designed especially for 7 year old girls to access the internet ‘safely’, My Friend Cayla Doll is ostensibly a blue tooth speaker and microphone that works off an app that you download onto your smart phone or tablet. She has a quiet voice, made for intimate chats with children in their homes. There is a structured database of responses to potential questions the designers think a girl-child of around 7 might ask. If your question isn’t in her database, she can search on Wikipedia. She is also scripted to ask children questions about themselves and what they like doing, including their names, parent’s names, where they live, and go to school.
As a level 1 blue tooth device there is no pin code to pair the doll with the phone, and almost immediately after My Friend Cayla was released onto the market, people were hacking her. Like many of the current swathe of internet connected toys, the security around accessing the object is very low. Earlier this year, someone even used her as a way to open a ‘smart’ lock on their front door. The safety aspect of the marketing rhetoric of My Friend Cayla doll refers chiefly to the restricted internet access she enables. This seems to be managed through a long list of banned words that she is not allowed to search for – including ‘buddha’ and ‘gay marriage’.
The prototype, re-purposed MoCC Guide Mikayla had her first outing at our Free Market prototyping event at Furtherfield in July 2015. Technologist Gareth Foote and myself attempted a radical cut and reconfiguration of her original script. We made her self aware. She began to talk about who made her, what she was made from, and how she felt about the condition of almost ubiquitous digital connectivity we increasingly live in. I had a lot of fun dreaming new words for her. Making her differently smart. Ian did research on component parts and their provenance, but I still couldn’t help put in statements about ponies and skateboarding. It was impossible to resist the personality of the object. Her styled eyebrows, long golden locks and open expression, means that the ‘play’ of the world we enter with her is the comedy strategy well-loved by Hollywood, the good looking and intelligent blonde. After all, what could be more surprising?
Here at followthethings.com, we’re fascinated by pranks, hoaxes and spoofs that try to bring into conversation the often hidden relations between the makers and users of commodities. Our whole site is intended to do this. It’s April 1st today so we thought it would be appropriate to mark the 60th anniversary of “one of the first times the medium of television [was] used to stage an April Fools Day hoax” (BBC nd) and “the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled” (CNN nd). On April 1 1957, the annual spaghetti harvest of a family in Ticino, Switzerland was reported in the BBC’s current affairs Panorama series. It was a bumper crop. This spoof was based on an assumption that people in Britain had no idea what spaghetti was, what it was made from, or where it came from. It arrived in tins.
Behind the scenes…
“Panorama cameraman Charles de Jaeger dreamed up the story after remembering how teachers at his school in Austria teased his classmates for being so stupid that if they were told that spaghetti grew on trees, they would believe it. The editor of Panorama Michael Peacock told the BBC in 2014 how he gave de Jaeger a budget of £100 and sent him off. The report was made more believable through its voice-over by respected broadcaster Richard Dimbleby. Peacock said Dimbleby knew they were using his authority to make the joke work, and that Dimbleby loved the idea and went at it with relish. At the time, seven million of the 15.8 million homes (about 44%) in Britain had television receivers. Pasta was not an everyday food in 1950s Britain, and it was known mainly from tinned spaghetti in tomato sauce and considered by many to be an exotic delicacy. An estimated eight million people watched the programme on 1 April, and hundreds phoned in the following day to question the authenticity of the story or ask for more information about spaghetti cultivation and how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC reportedly told them to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best”.” (Source: Wikipedia nd).
In the wake of the Trump election in the USA, our favourite book is now available at discount prices – e.g. $1 as an eBook – until the end of this week:
It’s perfect of our purposes and is available until the end of this week – in the wake of the Trump election – for only $1 as an eBook. It comes with a free study guide. There’s a website, too. But books are best!
This week, for the module behind our website, we held an arts and activism symposium at the University of Exeter. One of our speakers was artist Louise Ashcroft, who worked with us on our sister project the Museum of Contemporary Commodities earlier this year (what she made is here). Never have we heard students laugh so hard and be so inspired in an academic classroom. Watch Louise’s TED talk and you’ll see what we mean.
Today is an exciting day in the university module that powers our website. It’s our annual Arts and Activism Symposium, funded and hosted by the Department of Geography at the University of Exeter. Here’s the line-up and some background info on the projects our speakers will be talking about. After this, our students develop their own commodity activist work.